Parties Fight For
By Joel S. Hirschhorn
21 November, 2006
great democracy offers citizens sharp political choices. That’s
what gives political freedom meaning. With two-party control of America’s
political system, political options and discourse are stifled. We badly
need more visible third-parties that can fully participate and reach
the public with information about their platforms and candidates. In
a nation that so worships competition it is hypocritical that there
is so little political competition.
In truth, the Democratic-Republican
partnership opposes competition. They have convinced Americans that
votes for third party candidates are “wasted.” Yet the biggest
wasted vote is for a Democrat or Republican that is almost certain to
win or lose, and takes your vote for granted. This year, even in the
face of enormous public dissatisfaction with the two major parties,
and a widespread belief that both are hopelessly corrupted by big money
from corporate and other special interests, too many voters sheepishly
picked from column D or R, even for sure winners or losers.
In this remarkable year of
attention to many hot issues, especially political corruption and the
Iraq war, voter turnout was just over 40 percent, no better than the
previous midterm election. One valid view of why 60 percent of eligible
voters did not vote is that they saw little difference between the two
major parties and, therefore, that their votes do not matter. It’s
“they’re all a bunch of crooks and liars” belief,
bolstered this year with so much evidence of crooks in congress and
liars in the Bush administration. Where supporters of Republicans or
Democrats see different positions on issues, cynical citizens see nothing
but campaign propaganda and civic distraction through divisive issues.
So they do not vote their conscience or for lesser-evil candidates.
Most have too little information about third party candidates to vote
The untold statistical story
is that a minor party could achieve political victory if half of the
huge block of nonvoters chose its candidates, because major party winners
typically have just a little more than half of the smaller voting block.
The Democratic and Republican
Parties take no chances. They have used their muscle to keep third party
candidates out of public campaign venues, notably televised debates,
and to create rules that make it difficult fort them to get on ballots.
As Tom Knapp correctly observed: “Major party candidates are cowards.
They don't want to take stands that might cost them votes, but they
don't want to be publicly outed as the walking blobs of Silly Putty™
they are, either. So, they erect difficult ballot access barriers to
keep third party candidates out altogether, and when that fails they
collude with their fellow Silly Puttians to, as best possible, exclude
their third party opponents from the public discussion.”
The two-party duopoly prefers
lesser-evil voters, people considered as independents, moderates or
swing voters that can be influenced by aggressive and generally misleading
advertising to choose the least worse Republican or Democratic candidates.
Nor do the two majors really want a large voter turnout across the entire
spectrum of political views. They prefer to have well defined niche
categories of voters that they can target.
Here is a wonderful perspective
about third parties by Rick Gaber: “They give the otherwise ignored,
used, abused, betrayed, disgusted, disappointed, frustrated, victimized,
insulted, and/or outraged voter a chance to cast a vote without feeling
dirty afterwards, a reason to go to the polls AT ALL in the first place,
and maybe even to come out of the voting booth feeling GREAT!”
In contrast to lesser-evil
voters – third party voters proudly vote their conscience. They
know that the odds are totally against their choices winning. Yet they
do not stay home. They are true believers in American democracy. Their
votes are strong messages. They are more strategic voters with long
term hopefulness about political reform, as compared to tactical lesser-evil
voters hoping against reality that when the two-party pendulum swings
to the other side something really good happens.
The 2006 Elections
The 2006 midterm elections
showed the importance of votes for third party candidates who keep fighting
for a place in the American political system, despite being intentionally
disadvantaged by very little money and media coverage.
Consider the Democratic majority
in the Senate. Votes for third party candidates in three states were
critical. Much media attention went to Democrat Jim Webb’s win
in Virginia by a relatively small number of votes, less than 9,000.
As always, the media drummed up business by creating visions of a tight
race between the two major party candidates, and ignored the third party
candidate Gail Parker of the Independent Grassroots Party. As an independent
fiscal conservative she received over three times the number of votes
that gave Webb the victory over Republican George Allen. If just over
one-third of those conservative voters had voted for Allen, the Democrats
would not have a Senate majority. As elsewhere, some conservative voters
rebelled against the Republican Party.
The Montana senate race was
also featured. Democrat Jim Tester won over Republican Conrad Burns
with less than a 3,000 vote margin. The Libertarian Party candidate,
Stan Jones, received over three times that margin. So, if about one-third
of those voters had gone Republican, the Democrats would not have a
Senate Majority. Generally, Libertarian candidates take votes away from
Republicans, and certainly that was justified this year.
In Missouri, Democrat Claire
McCaskill beat Republican Jim Talent with a margin of about 46,000 votes.
Frank Gilmour from the Libertarian Party received more than that. He
and Lydia Lewis from the Progressive Party of Missouri received some
66,000 votes. So, if two-thirds of those voters had gone Republican,
the Democrats would not have a Senate majority.
Frank Gilmour said this about
his candidacy: “For far too long, our votes have been taken for
granted; we either vote for the lesser of the two evils or we do not
vote at all. My candidacy offers you a choice other than the two main
parties. I'm not on the extreme left or the extreme right. I live in
the middle, and I believe that most of you feel the same way. Our politicians
give us partisan bickering instead of legitimate debate. If you vote
for me it will send a message to the two main parties that enough is
Democrats owe a lot to those
third party candidates and voters in those three states. Republicans
deserved what they got.
These three cases, as many
other races in previous years, demonstrate that votes for third party
candidates are not “wasted.” Nor should such candidates
be falsely labeled as “spoilers.” The implication is that
they intentionally want to toss the race to one of the major party candidates.
In truth, third party candidates believe in their mission to raise things
neglected by the major parties. They can attract people that would not
otherwise vote. They add integrity to our democracy. If anything, their
current underdog status provides a constant reminder of just how unfair
the political playing field is. They are not the problem. Our status
quo political system is the problem, because two-party rule has “spoiled”
Libertarian candidate Garrett
Michael Hayes smartly put down the spoiler accusation this way; "I'm
in this to win. Whether or not that's a realistic goal, I don't care.
This country was founded by people whose goals sounded unrealistic at
Though Democratic control
of the House was a clearer victory, it should be noted that there were
six races where votes for third party candidates exceeded the margin
of victory. In five of the six, the Republican candidate won.
Looking at a larger scale,
how many Americans voted for third party and independent candidates
in the Senate and House races? In the House races almost 1.6 million
Americans went outside the two-party choices, and in the Senate races
the total was almost 1.3 million conscience voters. These numbers are
typical of past elections. Even though a majority of Americans expressed
dissatisfaction with both major parties in many opinion surveys this
year, they did not vote at all, were very motivated to get rid of Republican
control by voting for Democrats, or did not know enough about minor
Of the 33 Senate races, 26
had third party and independent candidates, or nearly 79 percent, with
Libertarian Party (the nation’s largest minor party) candidates
in 16 states and Green Party candidates in 9 cases. In the 435 House
races there were third party and independent candidates in 193 of them,
or just over 44 percent. Libertarian Party candidates were in 112 races
and Green Party candidates were in 37 races. Unsurprisingly, there was
Obscene Money Defeats
Shamefully, obscene amounts
of money go to the two major parties, maintaining their grip on the
system. Paltry amounts go to third party candidates, mostly small contributions
from individuals and financing from candidates themselves. This makes
it incredibly difficult for them to inform citizens about their positions
and qualifications. Usually, for senate races, major party candidates
spend millions, while third party candidates spend in the low thousands.
In Montana, Jones spent less than $2,000 on his campaign, compared to
$3.8 million spent by the winner Tester. In Virginia, Parker raised
just $1,200 in donations and financed much of her campaign through an
$18,472 personal loan, compared to over $12 million raised by the loser
Allen. In California, Todd Chretien, a losing Green Party Senate candidate,
Recall that nearly $3 billion
were spent by the two major parties on the congressional races this
year. In contrast, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics found
that the 74 federal third party candidates still in the running this
election cycle raised a total of just $3.1 million, according to campaign
finance data available Oct. 19. (This includes only those candidates
who would be new to Congress and who have reported raising at least
some money to the Federal Election Commission. It excludes pseudo-third
party candidate Joe Lieberman who raised about $15 million.) That $3.1
million amounts to just one-tenth of one percent of what the major parties
Those 74 candidates received
39 percent of their contributions from individuals, compared to less
than 1 percent from PACs and 58percent from their own pockets. Note
that Federal rules require candidates to file detailed reports of their
contributions and expenditures if their campaign raises or spends $5,000
or more, which many third party candidates do not exceed.
Michael Badnarik, a Libertarian
House candidate in Texas noted: "In order to win an election, not
only do I have to convince voters I'm the best candidate, I have to
let them know I'm a candidate at all." He raised more than $393,000,
the second-largest third party fundraiser remaining in the midterm elections.
In first place was Bruce Guthrie, a candidate for the Washington Senate
seat, with $1.2 million, mostly his own money. That leaves about $1.5
million for the other 72 candidates nationwide.
Into the Future
Despite the enormous challenges
facing third-parties, there are two newer energetic efforts that merit
attention. One is the Populist Party of America (www.populistamerica.com).
Here is its general statement of purpose:
The Populist Party promotes,
and strives for, Common Sense solutions; Democracy as a tool to reign
in the power of the federal government and ensure a greater responsibility
of all public servants to the People. Populism, as espoused by the Populist
Party, is a federal system of government where the final check and balance
on the power of the politicians is directly in the hands of the people;
with the Constitution and Bill of Rights serving as legal boundaries
to protect the rights and liberties of all citizens.
The other effort is the Centrist
Party (www.uscentrist.org). Here is its mission statement:
To achieve common sense solutions
that have at their heart, a tone of balance and fairness. To create
a strong foundation for mainstream America that is not prone to undue
influence from left/right arguments. To move away from character assassinations
and toward solution oriented campaigns. To empower people, and the vote,
with a strong position not confused by one-sided agendas, or special
interests. To formulate policies and solutions that regard short, medium
and long term considerations at all levels.
If more established third-parties
have not attracted you, for whatever reason, you may want to look into
these newer efforts
What is really needed by
third parties is a shift away from all the usual issues that the majors
talk about. Instead, what would resonate with the public is an emphasis
on structural or systemic political and policy reforms to revitalize
our democracy. This requires acknowledgement that our system is broken,
has become a plutocracy, and no longer serves ordinary people. Something
the majors can’t admit, because they broke it. Why fix a system
that they control?
Also, some collaboration
among third-parties would be useful, such as working together at times
to back a candidate to create a better chance of success. This year,
for example, Kevin Zeese was listed in many places as a Green Party
candidate for the Senate from Maryland. In fact, he also was backed
by the Libertarian and Populist Parties and ran a “unity for change”
campaign. He reportedly had only about $60,000 to compete against the
intense multi-million dollar campaigns of his Democratic and Republican
opponents, so his message never reached many people.
This is how Zeese summarized
the merits of having the backing of three parties and showed how they
were not mutually exclusive but complemented each other:
The Populist Party stands
for economic fairness for working families and recognizes how the U.S.
has rigged our tax laws, finance system and corporate welfare to help
the wealthiest while shrinking the middle class and undermining those
whose work makes our country great.
The Libertarian Party emphasizes
the central value of liberty – freedom – which is under
attack in the United States with laws like the Patriot Act, eminent
domain and a government that intrudes into private life. We need to
consider the question of liberty in every action the government takes
because it is our basic freedoms that unleash the creativity, entrepreneurship
and greatness of Americans.
The Green Party's ten key
values are a common sense outline of where our country needs to go.
These values include: grassroots democracy, social justice, ecological
wisdom, non-violence, decentralization, community-based economics, feminism,
diversity, responsibility and future focus.
What should the American
public demand from the federal government? Besides a number of electoral
reforms, the issue of money is critical. We need a federal Clean Money/Clean
Elections program. It would provide competitive government financing
of campaigns for candidates that voluntarily agree to take no other
funds, except small contributions from individuals. This approach has
been successfully used in several states. It not only opens up races
to third party candidates. It helps remove the corrupting influence
of big money from corporate and other special interests, because honest
major party candidates can also participate.
Now, third-parties are fighting
a losing battle to improve the quality of our democracy and government.
For the good of our nation, they need our support. A little publicized
nationwide poll this past April by Princeton Survey/Pew Research Center
reported that 53 percent agreed that we should have a third major political
party. What a worthy goal!
If the Democrats now in control
of the Congress want to demonstrate their commitment to fighting political
corruption and providing more incentives for Americans to vote, then
Clean Money/Clean Elections should be aggressively pursued. Will they
voluntarily loosen their grip on our political system? Or do they fear
The time is long overdue
for Americans to stop voting for candidates that can win, and start
voting for those that should win. What lesser-evil voting has produced
is entrenched two-party evil. We can do better. If we open our political
marketplace to more competition.
[A full range of actions to promote competitive third parties are in
the author’s new book; check it out at www.delusionaldemocracy.com.]
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